On executions, Perry has no rival

For those voters who consider support for the death penalty their top issue, the presidential race isn’t even a contest. When it comes to U.S. officials killing U.S. citizens, Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) is in a league of his own.

In his nearly 11 years as chief executive, Perry, now running for the GOP presidential nomination, has overseen more executions than any governor in modern history: 234 and counting. That’s more than the combined total in next two states — Oklahoma and Virginia — since the death penalty was restored 35 years ago.

The number is partly explained by sheer longevity at the helm of a huge state that has mastered the complicated legal maze of carrying out capital punishment.

But Perry has hardly shrunk from the task…. He vetoed a bill that would have spared the mentally retarded and sharply criticized a Supreme Court ruling that juveniles were not eligible for death.

It’s hard to say how this will perceived by voters or whether it will matter at all in an electoral context, but when it comes to Perry’s record, one execution in particular is likely to stand out.

In 2004, there’s reason to believe Texas may have executed an innocent man when it put Cameron Todd Willingham to death. When Willingham was convicted, prosecutors relied heavily on an “expert” who testified on the origins of a fire that killed Willingham’s daughters, and said Willingham was responsible. The problem, we now know, is that the “expert” apparently didn’t know what he was talking about.

But that’s only part of the story. As those familiar with the Willingham story likely remember, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, created to consider the competence of those who offer forensic testimony, hired an actual arson expert, to consider the evidence and report on his findings. He was scheduled to discuss what he found in early October 2009.

Rick Perry, who was governor when the state killed Willingham, was apparently afraid of what the truth might show. In the 11th hour, the governor started firing members of the Forensic Science Commission, ensuring that the panel couldn’t hold a meeting to discuss the case.

Even for Perry, this was brazen. He was so panicky that the facts would show Texas killed an innocent man, he went to ridiculous lengths to prevent the truth from coming out. Nearly two years later, the facts still haven’t been presented.

As this relates to the governor’s presidential campaign, the next question is whether voters will care. During last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) thought Perry might be vulnerable on this point. Her campaign posed the issue to a Texas focus group, which included one Republican who said, “It takes balls to execute an innocent man.”

Whether voters elsewhere consider the issue the same way remains to be seen.